Good-bye

 

From his desk in a carpeted bedroom-converted-to-office, the father hears an occasional muffled bump and a sneeze-under blankets as the last daughter beds down for the night in her room, which is straight through the wall. Most nights when he is home, he is called in there for a hug and a prayer and a whispered conversation about the day, in between a giving and taking tickle game. But sometimes the night gets away and they miss their little good-bye. Tonight is one of those.

She is late to bed and he is zoned-out to an office clean up ritual accompanied by an appropriate iTunes mix of Indie—at least that's what his older children would probably describe it as.

Focussing on the job at hand, he begins as he always does: pick up the first thing you see at the top of the pile and just keep going until it's all done, which might take three hours or three days, but it works. And all happening in the ambient environment he himself has carefully chosen: good music, a perfect cup of tea and a warm room.

There goes the first piece of paper, into the bin. Now for the next. Wait! This is an interview with a favourite hero from the war: Captain Winters of Easy Company.

He comes to a place where Winters is explaining how men could be inspired to follow another into the line of fire. 'How do you get the respect of the men?' (Winter's question is rhetorical) 'By living with them, being a part of it. Being able to understand what they are going through and not to separate yourself from them. You have to know your men. You have to gain their confidence. And to gain the confidence of anybody … you must be honest.'

Honest. The word takes the father's mind towards his daughter and son and the fact that soon enough they will both 'go out into the world, into the line of fire,' just as their older brothers and sisters did. He wants to be there with them, like Winters. He knows they will be hurt and disappointed.

But he has another problem: he is a preacher. And preachers—like everyone else these days—get into hyper-reality. What used to be called 'having a lend of yourself.' So, he wonders whether he has been honest enough with them about faith 'born of a furnace of doubt'13; and about his own story. He wishes he could somehow make a bargain with God and give them every ounce of endurance, character and hope that he has gained, even if it did mean that he himself would lose it all.

He remembers that moment of waking to the lilt of a soprano worship song and countless other moments of trust and then gratitude for trust honoured. He remembers treasured walks under stars where a quiet and brooding night had dressed herself in a silk mantle of after-dark and then … instead of words of gratitude, a grown man's tears sobbed-out like those of a child. Then he remembers words from a favourite chapter in the New Testament: 'Suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.'14

 

13Dostoyevsky

14Romans 5: 3 – 5

Coincidental Significance

 

Tonight the father feels scratched and bumped, as if the entire day has been a running of a gauntlet of nasty trolls that were determined to throw him off what he had in mind or at least to enjoy seeing him driven to a brain-snap. He had always toyed with the idea of having a brain snap, old school: cops, blood, ambulance—but then he'd seen the results in a paddy wagon late one night: brain-snapper handcuffed and placed in wagon; wagon accelerates towards red traffic lights; wagon jams on brakes; crunch! Offender hits inside wall of the wagon—and everyone in the pub laughing. Not worth it.

So whence the scratches and bumps? It had started out as such a sweet day: May sunshine; the last daughter and her friends chasing and wrestling (and being chased by) the family dog up and down the house until it was barking; the last boy cheerful and lanky in a windmill hat for his mufti day at school; the immaculate working mother up bright and early to the office; and lastly himself off to teach a vibrant class full of laughter and jokes with bright students who understood quickly, saw implications and immediately entered into enactment. What more could a teacher want?

'Not a teacher,' he tells himself. 'Just a mover of stuff around in people's brains; door-opener and rebellion starter—that's me. 'Teachers imprison and tell lies. Teachers make you do stuff you don't want to.'

First little grump of the day but he gets over that, tells himself to wake up and grow up, finishes the class; goes to a meeting; has lunch and then makes for the computer where he attempts to create, edit and send a file before he leaves for the next appointment. But even with the help of the button with the magnifying glass he is unable to find a cherished paragraph he needs to click and drag from another file. He knows it is in there. Time runs out and now he is really angry.

He stands, walks along the hallway to the laundry and stops, not sure what to do. But he knows what to do. He apologises, feels the power—of an already broken curse—fading quickly and is ashamed of this nasty little rush of complaint against fact, of angry gibberish, and is glad of Calvary. The almost finished and sent file must now be left till after dinner to be completed and sent.

By the time he returns to the job it is well into the evening, but with a cool head he finds the paragraph easily enough and sends the message. With not much of the night remaining, the father pours himself a port and heads for the next level—down that is. Down is always the preferred option, for that is where the books live; the secret world of dreams, which at the moment is a moderately busy street: a thriller about a geek girl who's apparently going to solve a murder but has taken a hundred and thirty pages and still hasn't been stabbed. And this in a book that has sold twenty six million copies. The father is sure that this is a bad sign re: the reading public. Next is a fat book of theology by an old Englishman holding forth on resurrection. The father (although he is a religious teacher) had virtually given up reading theology books twenty years ago, but this old gentleman researches and thinks as painstakingly and honestly and
interestingly as the (fictional) geek girl in the murder thriller. Lastly is the warlock father in a supernatural thriller, who has just manufactured a plasmoid human body that he is using as a kind of router: a device, which, in the computer world, forwards data packets along networks.

This occult-router has been shaped into a dwarfish middle-aged lady, with no soul and a limp, who's job is to connect with two others living in the the world of the dead, who, if they accept her data packets from the warlock, will be en-trapped into assisting the warlock-father to enslave his real target who lives in the world of the living. In other words he is arranging an ambush by using the plasmoid body and it's spirit connections as a conduit to plant dark viruses in the soul of his victim. Kind of like shooting someone in the back, but in such a way that your alibi is impeccable. The intensity, persistence and bitter determination of the plotting monster father sobers this father's mood.

That mood is sobered even further when he arrives at a place in the story where the dwarf plasmoid lady pauses and grapples with some opposing force. The author's words take on an unmistakably coincidental significance …

'Those who passed it heard a low croak coming from it, but not what it said. What it croaked to itself was a mass of comments and complaints: “But you would think, wouldn't you?” or “It's not as if I were asking much” or “I did think you'd understand” or “ After all fair is fair” or “ She might” or “He needn't” or “They could at least” … and so on and so on through all the silly and sinful imbecilities by which the miserable soul protects itself against fact.'12

That bit about 'the miserable soul protecting itself against fact' goes home, reinforcing the great sense of relief that the father has been feeling ever since the moment earlier in the day when he made his apology. The thought reminding him of another from the same author: 'Fact: the only thing that can be loved. “From him that has not shall be taken away, even that which he seems to have.” ' It would appear to the father that his fact-resisting moment earlier in the day had the potential to somehow make the rest of his day float away into non-fact and to cease to exist, and—unresolved and held onto—could have gone on forever until the rest of his life became not much more than a trailing cloud of smoking rage. All just for the sake of getting his own way. Every cell and nerve and muscle employed on and on into eternity for nothing other than the
satisfaction of self will. For a moment or two he pauses to remember and to cherish that moment of recognition of sin—in all its justifiable harmlessness—and of confession and of freedom.


12Charles Williams – All Hallows Eve p. 220

Realisations

Green, grey and pink movement fills the world of generous floor-to-ceiling window out of which the father looks. From where he sits, on a lounge chair inside the glass—reading a book and occasionally looking up to enjoy the view—the movement is silent but of great depth and rhythm, so powerful that the branches of a large box tree are swaying and so subtle that the occasional flutter of hanging strands of dark green Jasmine, which are closest to the window, are barely noticeable. Those strands lean out of much heavier ropes of entwined runners and fairy light cables where the lights burn like jewels now that evening is about to close in.

The whole arrangement of vines is symmetrical: falling straight, thick and dark on each side of the window and thin and curtained in the middle like the brushed and woven hair of some invisible goddess bride who stares out of her veil at the father while he, not thinking about that yet, simply enjoys the well-formed herringbon-ed ribs of Jasmine leaves and further out through the veil, hot pink roses high up on their thorny stems, looking up at a grey sky.

The shiver and sway makes the father think more deeply about what is happening in his book where a young woman has come back from the world of the dead to seek reconciliation with another young woman. But time is running out. Here in the bedroom of their meeting, the first young woman is about to be subjected to a 'final operation' by her father who is acquiring mastery of the underworld via his black magical experiments.

This other father in his lounge chair is torn between the rich and vibrant scene out there and what is about to happen between the two women in the book. The book wins:

'Betty sat up. Bright in the shadow her eyes opened on Lester, tender and full of laughter. She pushed the bed clothes back, swung out her legs and sat on the side of the bed. She said, 'Hello Lester what are you doing here?' The voice was full of warm welcome; Lester heard it incredulously. Betty went on. 'It's nice to see you anyway. How are you?'

Lester had waited for something but hardly for this. She had not begun to expect it but then she had never seen face to face, this other Betty who had gone almost dancing through the City, nor guessed the pure freshness of joy natural to the City… She knew at once that a greater than she was here; it was no wonder that she had been sent here for help. She looked at the girl sitting on the bed, whose voice was the only sound bar Evelyn's that had pierced her nothing since she had died, and she said, hoping that the other might also perhaps hear, 'Not too frightfully well.'

Betty had risen to her feet as Lester spoke. She looked as if she was about to go to the window but on Lester's words she said, 'What's the matter? Can I do anything?'

Lester looked at her, there was no doubt that this was Betty: light and free, joyous, revitalised, but still Betty. This was no sorrowing impotence of misery, it was an ardor of willingness to help. Yet to ask for help was not easy. The sense of fatal judgement was still present … but to ask that this be set aside, even to plead was not natural to Lester. But her need was too great for her to delay.

She said at once, 'Yes you can.'

Betty smiled and answered, 'That's alright. Tell me about it.'

Lester said rather hopelessly, 'It's those times … at school … and afterwards.'

'Those times at school? But Lester I always liked you at school.'

'Perhaps you did. But you may remember that I didn't behave as if I particularly liked you.'

'Oh didn't you? I know you didn't particularly want me, but why should you?' I was so much younger and … I expect, a nuisance. As far as I can remember you put up with me nobly. … Need we? It's so lovely of you to come and see me now.'

Lester realised that this was going to be worse than she had supposed. She had prepared herself to ask for forgiveness but that it seemed was not enough.

A Delayed Lunch

 

It's lunch time and the father in his office, after much self-argument, has finished writing a poem. He prints it out, reads the text on paper and wants to feel happy with it but knows there are still two or three words that he will have to find to make it perfect. Then, simultaneously, he thinks of lunch; thinks of doing some more writing and wonders what is playing on his playlist.

At that exact moment he taps the volume control on his laptop, which has been playing, but with the volume off. A deep, sarcastic voice is in conversation with a small and timid voice.

Sarcastic voice: 'We very much want to make Christianity believed in as a means to an end… even social justice … for the good of society.'

Timid Voice: 'Surely not!'

'I don't mean as a reality but to value it as a thing the enemy wants … The enemy will not be used as a means to an end. Do you see?'

'No.'

'Aaah! “Believe this, not because it is true, but because it serves a purpose!” '

'Ah …'

'Yes, that's the game. Now! Round up the other tempters.'

The track finishes and is immediately followed by the shrieking metallic of a Rage Against the Machine song: 'Wake Up!'

The father in his office turns off the playlist and wants to eat, but that previous thought is now 'tapping more loudly on the window of his mind'. He is not sure what the thought wants but it seems to be saying: 'We thoughts are delicate, like dandelion flowers that get blown away and lost forever. Remember that library and the panic felt by the Assigned Spirit when it saw a dangerous thought approaching the subject's mind and then the spirit's deviously suggested counter thought? “Yes,' it said, 'it is time for lunch and a thought such as that is far too important to be tackled on an empty stomach.” The subject fell for it and was on the street in moments where a shout from a paper boy and the roar of a noisy bus made it easy for another thought to assert itself: 'This is the real world.'

The father doubts that this moment here and now would be on the same level as that, but, out of a deep bloody-mindedness towards hell—filled with recollections of painstaking struggles for freedom from his own sins; the lies, wrecked families and suicides of others; and a hundred joyful faces expressing gratitude—he decides to heed the thought just in case, and to stay and to write, despite his appetite for XXXX Gold and fresh bread, anchovies and chilli.

 

 

Listening and Enjoying

     Here in a warm room the father and daughter make the most of their breakfasting and reading hour: Charles Williams, Christopher Paolini, porridge and rhubarb, and tea. The father sitting at a table of lace cloth set with a potted-plant of scarlet and white flowered tulips. The girl (not yet eleven, and his last daughter) next to a window—mesmerised by her fantasy novel—reclines in her dressing gown enjoying the sunlit-bathed part of the room. Morning is getting late.

     She, the exuberant daughter, begins to talk of her delight in reading, not by saying that, but by showing her father the thick slabs of pages she has already devoured whilst lying in bed. He himself resists listening at first, then is caught by her and remembers the age and the time of youthful sunshine, of fresh discovery and of exultation in books as one who has found a doorway to a secret chamber of dreams.

     In her book, men are enslaved by powerful and intelligent, bird-like creatures and have recently abducted a princess. In his book, another daughter has been hypnotised by a preacher and sent into the world of the dead to retrieve information. She looks at London and sees a beautiful city of lights and shadow. She is torn between the terrible work she has been sent to do and her deepening awareness of a surprise: the inexplicable approach of light-filled love, a love that has just now mysteriously enabled her to say what her mother has never allowed her to say.

     'I am not very good at explaining … I've been trying to explain something to my mother for a long time, but I've never got it over.' She spoke aloud, but not to anyone present.'

 

Surprised

 

Outside the day is long over, but in here the bright text-screen holds sway over the eyes and the tapping fingers, which would go on for hours more except that numbers in the top right hand corner of the monitor are telling the time and saying that it is in fact time for the walk, which is usually looked forward to and normally never far.

Making a move now for the door where there's just the slightest hesitation: is this to be a going outside night, a straight to bed night or just a quiet port and a candle inside? Outside, definitely, out there with the trees: Weeping, Happy and Laughing Trees where the stories of the world are told and made. An invisible space in the glaring flatness of naive daylight, but quiet and brooding after sundown, when—in preparation for a great ebb and flow of prayers and songs—she dresses in the silk mantle of after-dark and then waits in the same way that an old cat might curl up and wait by a fire on the coldest of nights and purr even more loudly when the tears of a child begin to flow, or—when the walk has been long and far and late—a curious old dog might sidle up to and snuffle a lost and lonely hand.

Tonight the entire sky is a rolling billow of grey and black. The moon is losing her battle to be seen. In the name of Calvary and of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the time and space is sanctified and the ebb and flow begins.

'See that moon?'

'Yes.'

'It's disappearing right?'

'It is, and it's losing the fight, the darkness is too strong. It would be nice if it was to at least be given a chance and I could see it shining again.'

'But it is not lost.'

'It is, there is no hope in such a sky—blind, grey and billowing as far as the eye can see. No moon now.'

'You are impossible.'

'Impossible?'

'Yes. On the other side of those clouds the light is shining bright on that face.'

'OK. I'll pay that. It's just that I wanted to see it for myself so I could be be sure.'

'A fact is a fact whether you are sure about it or not and I happen to be able to see what you cannot.'

'Thank you. Can we talk about some others now?'

'Go right ahead…'

The ebb and flow takes a different turn and the sky is forgotten. Then, not much later, the subject of the sky is brought back into the conversation.

'Look at that! Clear as far as you can see and the moon free as a bird!'

'Wooah! It is. How did that happen?'

'Doesn't matter. I got you on both counts didn't I?'

'Indeed: the light on the face … and free as a bird. Still don't know how that happened. You did it while my back was turned.'

'Don't you mean “while we talked”?'

'Yes, you distracted me the way a magician does. Amen.'

 

A New Day

Darkness is fading and the sweet chirping of a tiny bird is announcing pale dawn, coolness, freshness and colours. Not that the colours are visible when the eyes are closed and most of the man is buried under blankets. Still, he waits, enjoying all the textures and variations of newness, like a happy member of an audience listening in on an orchestra as it tunes up for a much-anticipated performance. Here comes the percussion, fittingly layered in between the random song-bursts of that tiny bundle of feathers. First, a rhythmic brushing, then a dull but regular clunking of iron on fabric accompanied by a hissing of steam and finally—in soft lilted soprano—a never before heard worship song coming from the lips of the beloved who is unwittingly joining her orchestra in with that of the birds whilst preparing her hair, her clothes and her body to meet this new day.